3. The Israeli Election: More of the Same?

On March 23 Israelis will vote for the fourth time in two years. Will this election, like the three previous renditions, simply confirm again the dominance of right-wing and religious parties?

Yes. Voting in Israel is remarkably stable, looking at voters by ideological blocs and not by ever-shifting party alignments. Political parties come and go, split and merge and split again in dizzying kaleidoscopic fashion. But voters generally stay within the bloc that matches their predilections.

For example, in the first seven elections after the state was founded, parties on the left consistently won about half of the 120 seats in the Knesset, parties on the center and right won a bit less than one-third, and religious parties came in between 12.5 and 15 percent.

Over time the relative strength of the blocs changed as the demography of the nation changed. New Israelis of Middle Eastern origin (Mizrahim) turned against the Labor Zionist establishment and toward more hawkish voices on the right. This shift lay behind the "upheaval" of 1977, in which the left permanently lost its dominance.

The Mizrahi vote for the right-wing Likud rose from 35 percent in 1969 to 45 percent in 1973, 56 percent in 1977, and 69 percent in 1981. The Mizrahim (today about 40 percent of the population) remain a mainstay of the right. The religious public (25-30 percent) also skews to the right.

The right was further reinforced by immigrants from the former Soviet Union, now about 20 percent of the country, who came with an antipathy to socialism and strong hawkish instincts. The bottom line: in a recent survey only 14 percent of Israeli Jews still identified themselves with the left or center left, 18 percent with the center, and 63 percent with the right or center right.

The result: in every election but one since 2000, the right-wing and religious blocs together have commanded a clear majority (2006 was a fluke because of a strong centrist party). And the last five polls in the present campaign give the right and religious blocs a smashing majority of around two-thirds: 77-84 seats of 120.

So the political landscape after March 23 will, again, be dominated by right and religious parties. The question is whether Bibi Netanyahu, facing trial for fraud, bribery, and breach of trust, will continue as Prime Minister. His Likud party will still be the largest single party, but two other right-wing parties have sworn not to join a government led by Bibi.

Conceivably these right-wingers could, with religious and centrist support, scrape together a majority without Bibi -- a rickety government with deep secular vs. religious tensions. Conceivably Bibi could, with religious and centrist support, stitch together an equally unlikely cast of disparate actors. It will all depend on the exact arithmetic.

Plus ça change . . . .